Saturday, March 31, 2012

Take Me Ridin' in the Car Car...

My brother and I next to our grandma's Opel

Here in the Bay Area we have access to great public transportation. I own a car, but I don't use it every day. In fact, I don't use it much at all. The first year I lived here, I put less than a thousand miles on it. This year, I'll probably put just under 4K, about the amount M and I will travel during our trip across country. According to the Federal Highway Administration the average yearly mileage per American driver is approx. 13,500 miles. Crazy.

Most people here don't have to rely on cars to get around, but that doesn't mean the roads are barren wastelands or wide bicycle lanes full of fixies and the smug hipsters who ride them. People here own cars, and they don't hesitate to use them. One need only look about oneself while stuck in traffic to observe the endless lines of hybrids, corn oil fed sunshine-mobiles and urban luxury tanks, which on average cost more than my (personally crushing) student loan debt.

My favorite car is attached to a commuter train.

When I was a teenager, I didn't realize that a person had a choice not to drive. At fifteen, all kids in Michigan took drivers ed, unless they were farm kids, which meant they had been driving for years already. Our school district's drivers ed class took place during the summer, which was a huge disappointment. Even worse, our instructor was also our high school swim coach, a total lunkhead who terrorized me and my cohort enough during the regular school year. That guy could ruin anything. He especially loved to crush teenagers' fragile egos whilst having them cart him around on his daily errands to the post office and the McDonald's drive-through. There was a lot of yelling and crying and gnashing of teeth in our car that summer, but I managed to make it through with a learner's permit.

I promptly put the permit in a desk drawer or wedged it into a book or something, and the last thought I gave it for months was, "I'm glad that shit is over with."

Then, one-by-one, my buddies started turning sixteen and getting their real driver's licenses and their own rusty four-cylinder leading-cause-of-death-among-teens machines. Until then, my feet and bike and the goodwill of other people's parents had done me just fine.

But those things only took me from here to there.

Me and my best buddy, J.J. , at the mall. I'm 15; she's 16. She drove.

When my friends started getting cars, they started going from here to anywhere, just anywhere, and I got to go anywhere, too. Anywhere was innocent: the skating rink or Sugarloaf Lake or some back road where the only radio station a car with a broken antenna could get would be playing Ricky Van Shelton or Vince Gill, and we would be singing along.

Anywhere felt nice. Anywhere felt like the solid center of something, though it was diffuse and undefined. Being anywhere meant not having to be anywhere, too. It felt like freedom. It felt exactly like what America is supposed to feel like.

When I turned sixteen, I had to get a license and a car. I saved my money from the paper route, babysitting, and my job at the fabric store. My dad helped me out some. For around $500, I bought a 1983 silver Subaru station wagon off a dairy farmer who had it sitting in his yard. Its main selling features were its tape deck and the fact that it moved. It also had four wheel drive, which can come in pretty handy in a place like Michigan.

A typical Michigan road
Of course, no one wanted to ride around in the silver Subaru at first. It was not an American car, and that was still a big deal in those days. But my friends and I finally invented an economy in which the parts for the car were probably made in Tennessee, and we agreed that money I coughed up for it probably got spent in the USA. We had pretty much fallen out of love with the big car companies, since they had laid off most everyone's parents from the jobs they had held for years and years. We were all poor because of it, whether our parents had worked at the factories or not, so we had no choice but to drive what we could afford--no matter where it was made--because we had no choice but to drive.

By the end of that first summer with a driver's license, my car and I had become one. I saw it as an extension of myself and my life. Around that time, I also decided I wanted to be a farmer or a vet or a biologist when I "grew up." I started taking Ag-business classes in the mornings at a country school twenty miles from home. In the afternoons, I took required classes in the city proper. Then, I joined the Future Farmers of America (FFA) and had to drive ten miles in the other direction every afternoon to work at a seed lab as part of a learning extension I did with the group. At the lab, I learned the most amazing things about DNA and genetics and math.

Without the ability to get to those places, I'd be a different person now.

Me behind the wheel of my first car

Today, the average age of a car driving on an American road is around eleven years. My car is twelve. Most of these vehicles aren't that fuel efficient, maybe not even that reliable, but many Americans can't afford to buy something of the Prius or Leaf or Fit variety, which are so ubiquitous on Bay Area roads these days. I'm not really sure these cars would be all that popular anyway, even if they were within reach.

I'm just going to come out and say it: those cars don't have any character. It may not matter to some people, but for many, their cars represent a deep part of their personal and national identity.

As a teenager, driving a foreign car meant I had to be less nationalistic and more open minded; maybe that gave me the bravery to reject the status quo and see how big and microscopic the world was. The succession of crap franken-cars I had after the Subaru literally meant how working class I was. When I graduated from college and bought the first car I actually wanted, a royal purple 1995 Toyota 4Runner --don't you dare laugh, don't anyone laugh-- that car meant I had made it.

The day I picked it up from the dealership, the salesmen told me to be careful. It was a beast, and I didn't care how much gas cost or how outrageously huge it was or how I had to reconcile it against my love for the environment. That thing meant me. 

Saying "Goodbye" to Grimace
Of course, the 4Runner was totaled less than a year after I bought it, in a very scary highway accident that I was lucky to walk away from. I still think about that beast: All. The. Time. When I'm sporting my boring and reliable Toyota Solara Camry --Yawn. Seriously, y'all: yawn -- I wish I was high above the road in that SUV.

Look, I hate traffic, and I wish we had a society where everyone had cheap, easy access to safe and reliable public transportation, and they all wanted to use it. Where that is a reality, a lot of people are now starting to make the choice not to drive. The internet is bringing us closer, making us free and bound up all at once. We can express our identity and aesthetic in smaller ways through the technology we use and our personal artifacts, rather than the cars we drive. Fuel is expensive. Emissions are dirty. Most of us don't have money to keep the things on the road.

And still...

I can't help but think about the way anywhere feels.


  1. What a lovely meditation. My first car was a 1951 Willys Jeepster, a convertible that looked a little like the Volkswagen Thing. I bought it from my minister for $300, a princely sum to me at 20. I immediately took it on a road trip, moving from NM to Grand Rapids. It blew a cylinder in Iowa City. My brother was with me, and I had to put him on a bus back to college. My minister was generous--he took the car back and gave me my money back. Once in GR, I bought a black, convertible VW bug at Staal Buick, the company my grandmother's family owned once upon a time.

    1. Anna, wow! A Willys Jeepster?! That's so cool. Sorry it broke down, though.
      One of the cars that got me into trouble was my mom's turquoise, convertible VW Bug. I used swipe it and hijack a German exchange student (I felt bad for him, why would anyone want to be exchanged to Canal Winchester, Ohio) and take him joy riding in it.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.